Messing Around With Genes

Since 2015, Congress has included language in its funding bills to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from approving any application to create in vitro fertilization children from embryos that have been genetically modified.  Because the prohibitory language has been included in funding bills that have expiration dates, it needs to be renewed every year.  The House of Representatives just passed legislation that includes the renewal language, as part of an effort to fund certain governmental activities like food stamps and drug approvals.

Khan1The issue of genetic modification of embryos has some special urgency these days, with the recent news that Chinese scientists have announced the birth of the first genetically modified children — twin girls whose genes allegedly have been altered to supposedly make them specially resistant to HIV.  The Chinese scientists used a protein to edit the genes on a “CRISPR” — a stretch of DNA.  Some people question the validity of the Chinese claim about these so-called “CRISPR babies,” but there is no doubt that genetic manipulation of human beings is moving from the realm of science fiction to the reality of science fact.

The bar to such activities created by Congress ensures that efforts to genetically modify humans are not going to be happening in America — at least for now.  Is that a good thing?  The FDA Commissioner has said:  “Certain uses of science should be judged intolerable, and cause scientists to be cast out. The use of CRISPR to edit human embryos or germ line cells should fall into that bucket. Anything less puts the science and the entire scientific enterprise at risk.”  Others argue that Congress has taken a “meat axe” approach when it should be crafting a more nuanced policy that recognizes that some genetic manipulation could be beneficial.

It’s hard to know what’s right.  Scientists have been involved in the reproductive process for years, and their work, through processes like in vitro fertilization, has allowed people who are struggling to conceive to realize their dream of having children.  But I think the notion of scientists tinkering with genes to create “better” human beings crosses a line in several ways.  First, I’m not entirely confident that scientists know what they are doing and that there won’t be unintended, negative consequences from the removal of the genes the scientists snip out.  Anyone who has read about the history of science knows that scientists have been wrong before, and its reasonable to think they might be wrong again — only this time, their errors wouldn’t just be about the impact of certain foods or the properties of atoms, but would directly affect specific human beings.  Second, where do you draw the line in genetic manipulation?  Modifying DNA sequences to try to avoid diseases or debilitating health conditions is one thing, but what if scientists want to edit genes to create humans who are smarter, or more athletic, or taller?  Do we really want to permit the creation of “designer people” — like Khan Noonien Singh, that memorable Star Trek character who was genetically modified to be a kind of superhuman?  And finally, as this article points out, the whole issue brings up uncomfortable memories of the eugenics arguments of the early 20th century, where certain ethnic groups and traits were considered superior and others inferior.  If “improved” humans are created, where does that leave the rest of us?

In my view, this is an area where a sweeping rule makes sense — at least initially.  I think we need a lot more evidence, and a lot more thinking, before we should allow scientists to go messing around with human genetic material.

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When The Shutdown Hits Home

You could almost forget about the government shutdown, it being the holidays and all — except for the fact that the port-a-potties at the national park next door have been closed and sealed and aren’t available for use. The sign on the door reads: “AREA CLOSED. Because of a lapse in federal appropriations, this national park facility is closed for the safety of visitors and park resources. Please visit http://www.nps.gov and select ‘Find A Park’ for additional information about access to other parks and sites in this area.”

You learn something new every day, I guess. I had no idea a port-a-potty is a “national park facility,” or that letting a visitor use it for its intended purpose would pose a risk of safety to visitors and national park resources. An inoperable port-a-potty seems like a good metaphor for our federal government these days, though, doesn’t it?

Another Date That Will Live In Infamy?

There are some notorious dates in American history.  FDR declared December 7, 1941, the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, “a date that will live in infamy.”  September 11, 2001 obviously is another, and so is April 14, 1865 — the day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, and sent history veering off into a different direction.

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Should February 5, 2013 join them in the annals of infamy?

Why?  Because, according to this interesting article in Politico, that’s the date Donald Trump learned how to send tweets all by himself.  Before then, all of The Donald’s tweets were typed and sent by his social media manager.  But on February 5, 2013, Trump personally composed and issued a tweet that was a simple thank-you to an actress who said something nice about him . . . and the rest was history.

Of course, you can’t really equate mastery of Twitter with a bombing that pulled America into World War II, or the assassination of the greatest President in American history — but the Twitter breakthrough clearly has had profound implications.  Before, politicians and Presidents tended to communicate with the American people primarily through speeches and prepared statements that could be carefully vetted.  Now, tweets are issued directly from the President himself, without any ghost-writing or review.  Ill-advised 140-character (now 280-character) blasts thumbed in at odd hours can set a new direction for American policy or radically change the news cycle.

In my view, that’s definitely not a good thing.  But the genie has escaped the bottle, and you wonder if we’ll ever get back to the day when there is some kind of gravitas and mystique — and distance from the masses — to the office of the Presidency again.

And here’s an even more disturbing thing:  according to the Politico piece, President Trump’s former social media manager is advising him to “up his game” on social media and engage more personally with his supporters, by making his Instagram account more interesting and doing things like live-streaming from the Oval Office.  Hey, what could go wrong with that?

Holding Congressional Harassers Accountable

We frequently criticize the Congress in this country, and for good reason.  So when Congress does something right — and on a bipartisan basis, to boot — it’s only fair that it should be recognized.

Sexual-Harassment-in-the-Workplace-722x406Yesterday Congress passed legislation that would end taxpayer financing of settlements of claims of congressional harassment of staffers.  Under the current system, if a Senator or Representative is accused of sexual misconduct and decides to settle the claim, the settlement is funded by our tax dollars.  And, because settlements typically involve strong confidentiality protections, we may not even learn of the existence or nature of the harassment claim or the amount of the settlement payment.

And get this:  more than a thousand former congressional staff members wrote to Congress in support of the bill.  One of the bill’s sponsors, Democrat Jackie Speier, said that their letter “made the case all too clear, that sexual harassment in Congress was a huge problem.” Speier added:  “Time is finally up for members of Congress who think that they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. … They will pay back the U.S. Treasury.”

The legislation reflects a compromise, as congressional legislation typically does; it also caps lawmaker liability at $300,000 if there is actually a court finding of harassment and assessment of damages.  But at least court cases and decisions are matters of public record, so the misbehavior of the Senator or Representative will become known to all and they can be held accountable by voters for their misconduct.  In my view, that cap on damages is more than outweighed by the elimination of taxpayer funding of settlements, a requirement that Congress report on and publish such settlements, and changes to other rules to strengthen protections for congressional staffers.

I don’t like the special treatment that members of Congress routinely receive, and my tax dollars obviously shouldn’t go toward enabling congressional misbehavior and funding secret settlements to cover it up.  I’m glad Congress finally agrees with that common sense conclusion.  The bill now goes to President Trump for his consideration.  Let’s hope he also sees the light and signs it into law.

Aftermath Of The GM Bailout

General Motors — the company that American taxpayers bailed out less than a decade ago, rescuing the company from near-certain bankruptcy after years of mismanagement — continues to struggle, and the dominoes that were toppled by the bailout decision continue to fall.

636198172298775780-lsjbrd-04-17-2016-gli-1-a001-2016-04-14-img-gm-shutdown-jpg-1-1-fhe0e7gq-l792930015-img-gm-shutdown-jpg-1-1-fhe0e7gqYesterday the company announced that it is engaging in a massive restructuring that will close assembly plants in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, eliminate thousands of jobs, and end some car lines.  One of the vehicles  being discontinued is the Chevy Volt, the electric hybrid GM rolled out to great fanfare.  The company said that “GM is continuing to take proactive steps to improve overall business performance, including the reorganization of its global product development staffs, the realignment of its manufacturing capacity and a reduction of salaried workforce.”  GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, said “GM wants to stay in front of changing market conditions and customer preferences for its long-term success.”  One of the “changing market conditions” is the declining public demand for passenger cars like the Volt and the Chevy Impala, which also is being discontinued.

President Trump and the United Auto Workers are both unhappy at the GM move.  Trump said he didn’t like GM’s decision and reports that he told Barra “You know, this country has done a lot for General Motors. You better get back in there soon. That’s Ohio, and you better get back in there soon.”  The UAW, which will see the loss of lots of blue collar jobs held by its members, said:  “This callous decision by GM to reduce or cease operations in American plants, while opening or increasing production in Mexico and China plants for sales to American consumers, is, in its implementation, profoundly damaging to our American workforce.”  The UAW news release added that “GM’s production decisions, in light of employee concessions during the economic downturn and a taxpayer bailout from bankruptcy, puts profits before the working families of this country whose personal sacrifices stood with GM during those dark days.”

GM’s decision will no doubt be devastating to those employees who lose their jobs and the communities where the plants will close.  But it also makes me wonder how even the advocates for the taxpayer bailout of GM less than 10 years ago feel about their decision to prop up GM now.  The underlying question raised by the UAW and President Trump is legitimate:  Was the bailout worth it, in view of these kinds of decisions?  GM remains a public company, and it gets to make decisions that it considers to be in its own competitive interest.  And if changing market conditions really do require GM to cut thousands of jobs that the bailout advocates expected would continue indefinitely, that may just tells you something about the wisdom of taxpayer bailouts generally.

Split Decision

The 2018 election results were a split decision.  Democrats won enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives, yet Republicans gained at least three seats in the Senate — with a few close races yet to be determined.  The “Blue Wave” some were forecasting didn’t really materialize, but the Democratic gains mean that we’ll have at least two years of divided government, with Ds in charge of the House of Representatives, the Rs controlling the Senate, and President Trump in the White House.

Voters Across The Country Head To The Polls For The Midterm ElectionsIn Ohio, Republicans held on to the governorship and statewide offices, our Democratic Senator was reelected, and Republicans retained control of Ohio’s House of Representatives delegation.  Despite a lot of spirited contests, the overall makeup didn’t change much.  It’s notable, however, that the voter turnout in this election appears to have been significantly higher than in 2014, the last off-cycle election.  More than 4 million Ohioans cast their ballots in the governor’s race this year, compared to only about 3 million Ohioans voting for governor in 2014.  I don’t know what that works out to as a percentage of registered voters, but the increase in the raw number of voters is very encouraging.  And Ohio voters also overwhelmingly rejected a referendum to amend the state constitution to reduce sentences for drug offenders.

And speaking of constitutions, you could reasonably argue that the federal Constitution had a lot to do with the split decision that we saw from voters yesterday.  The bicameral approach that the Framers reached as a compromise has every member of the House of Representatives up for election every two years, making the House the voice of the people on the current issues of the day, whereas Senators, holding six-year terms that require only one-third of the Senate to stand for election in any two-year cycle, are supposed to be less prone to popular passions.  In short, it’s harder, and takes longer, to change the makeup of the Senate — but things might be different next time around, when more Republican seats are in play.

And the Constitution also will have something to say about what happens in the next two years, too.  With Republicans controlling the Senate, they’ll be able to provide advice and consent and confirm judicial nominees and other nominees, but since all bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives, Democrats will have the ability to thwart any tax or spending initiatives they don’t find palatable.  Each House will have the ability to conduct any investigations they deem necessary, and legislation will be approved only if the House and Senate leaders, and President Trump, can find common ground — a compromise approach that both parties can swallow.

“Common ground”?  It sounds like an almost mystical place in these days of incredibly sharp and heated political differences.  One of the more interesting things to look for over the next few years is just how much “common ground” can be found.

A Day Of Expectancy

The polling place in my neighborhood opens at 6:30 Eastern time this morning.  I’ll be there then, ready to exercise my franchise in this election — the latest election to be called The Most Important Election in American History.

vote_here_signs_0By voting on Election Day, I’m late to the game these days.  Many of my friends, colleagues and family members have already voted.  Richard has cast his ballot down in Texas, where early voting numbers have set records, and that’s true in other parts of the country, too.  I think early voting is a great thing, because it provides flexibility and allows more people to participate in the process in accordance with their work and family schedules.  Still, I prefer voting on Election Day itself.  The lines might be a little longer, but there is just something about being at the polls with your fellow citizens, waiting patiently and quietly to have your turn in the voting booth, without accompanying rancor or bluster.  There’s a certain solemnity to it, and a certain majesty, too.  It always makes me feel good about myself, my community, and my country.

I also like Election Day because it is a day of expectancy.  As the day unfolds, you know that millions of little, individual decisions are happening all around you that are slowly producing big, important results.  It’s like a titanic machine with countless small parts, moving ponderously but inexorably in one direction or another — and we’re the little gears and sprockets and cogs that make it go.  Whether we agree with the decisions or not, by the end of the day today we’ll have a pretty good idea of what our fellow citizens are thinking about the country and its direction.

And, especially recently, I like Election Day for yet another reason:  because after today, all of the commercials and predictions and fanfare will be over, at least for a little while, and we can have some breathing space before we start gearing up for the next Most Important Election in American History.  I think we can use some breathing space.